17 March 2004

Initiatives by Moderate Muslims in Indonesia

The East-West Wire of Honolulu's East-West Center ran the following story last week while I was away.

HONOLULU (March 10) -- Muslim moderates in Indonesia prevented Islamic extremists from using the Iraq war to gain support by focusing anti-war rallies on peace, a leading U.S. scholar of Islam and civil society said Tuesday at an East-West Center program. They have also helped contain extremism by initiating civic education in Muslim universities.

By organizing mass anti-war rallies like those seen in the United States in the 1960s, moderates "seized the (Iraq) issue from the extremists," said Robert Hefner, an anthology professor and associate director of Boston University's Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. "Iraq, to my astonishment, had little impact. The moderates reasserted themselves."

Hefner just returned from Indonesia, where he examined communications between the United States and Islamic communities. Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and the Bali bombing, moderate Muslims have mobilized radio programming and other networks to help Indonesians understand issues that might be used by extremists and terrorists to build support, he said.

"The moderate Muslims know there is a crisis, a struggle for hearts and souls, and they are looking for political and cultural tools to combat extremism," he said.

After the Suharto regime collapsed in 1998, the moderates initiated the largest civic education program in Asia and in all the Muslim world. The course is required at all Muslim universities, reaching 18 percent of the country's university students, and is funded by the United States through the Asia Foundation and by other international governments and agencies. Muslim educators have also started introducing the course into the upper grades at pesantren, Indonesia's religious schools.

The course, using textbooks written at Muslim universities, looks at how democracy, plurality and human rights are compatible and vital components of Islam. Classes have triggered much student interest, Hefner said.

Hefner noted that Indonesians take great interest in the political process -- 93 percent of voters cast ballots in the 1999 elections and a high turnout is expected at this year's elections as well.
Such efforts are indeed praiseworthy, but this report, like so many purely academic reports, seems utterly to ignore how ineffective the moderates were in preventing the horrendous outbreaks of violence throughout the country--from Aceh to Maluku to East Timor to West Papua--much of it stoked by the brutal Indonesian military and inflamed by well-armed, hardcore extremists from the Laskar Jihad, which reached a crescendo in 1999-2000, well before the Iraq invasion, before 11 September 2001, and even before the U.S. presidential election in 2000.

The Jaringan Islam Liberal (Liberal Islam Network) needs all the support we can give it.

No comments: